Over the past 32 years of full-time ministry—as a church planter, a youth guy, and the founder of a para-church organization—I’ve seen all sorts of youth leaders. Some are like falling stars—a bright streak of light that’s brilliant but short-lived. Others are like sunrises—slow at first but increasingly brilliant over time.
The youth leaders with longevity and impact are not always the flashiest, but most have at least three common habits they consistently exemplify:
1. The habit of prayer
Youth leaders worth their salt know where the shaker is. They know it’s not found in the latest youth-ministry-idea books but in the very throne room of God. These youth pastors lead from their knees, so the decisions they make are sound, not silly.
A consistent immersion in Scripture and a passion to live out their faith authentically grounds these youth leaders’ prayer lives. Like Paul in Philippians 3:10-14, these leaders aren’t perfect (nor do they claim to be), but they’re surging forward toward the goal of being who God called them to be, all the while finding their strength in Jesus to get them there.
2. The habit of fitness
When I use the word “fitness,” I don’t mean just sweating on a treadmill or swinging kettlebells. I mean a general lifestyle fitness that extends from the youth leader’s own physical health and includes relational health, learning, and rest.
In Luke 2:52, we read about Jesus’s development years:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and all the people.
Jesus grew fit educationally, physically (how else could he have endured the horror of the cross?), spiritually, and relationally.
Youth leaders who finish the marathon of youth ministry well usually have overall-healthy lifestyles. Dysfunctional or nonexistent personal relationships and a lack of reading widely, combined with fast food clogging your mind and arteries, is a recipe for burnout—and a heart attack!
Mixing in some cardio and weight training every now and again won’t hurt either.
3. The habit of intentionality
Effective youth leaders are intentional youth leaders.
They’re intentional about mission. They aren’t in youth ministry just to exercise a standard program. They’re locked into a church for a specific mission: to make disciples who make disciples. These youth leaders know their prime directive is from Jesus Himself: to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) starting in their “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
They’re intentional about planning. They heed Solomon’s wisdom in Proverbs 21:5:
Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty.
These youth leaders understand the importance of prioritizing their calendars with the “big rocks first” before the gravel and sand of lesser things take up their schedules. Many of the youth leaders I know who are the most strategic became more strategic as they developed a Gospel Advancing mindset over time.
They’re intentional about excellence. Effective youth leaders don’t just plan well—they execute well. They do this through hard work and effective delegation. They gather around them an excellent team and lift up a standard of high quality, from programming to people. What they lack in budget they make up for in sweat equity, creativity, persistence, and prayer.
They’re intentional about evaluation. These youth leaders don’t just do a series of events, talks, and programming and just keep chugging along. They take time to ask the hard questions like:
- How well did that go?
- What were the outcomes?
- Did it need to be done at all?
- How could we have made it better?
I think of my friend Mario, just outside of Chicago. He is a 30-year youth ministry vet. He’s not the flashiest youth leader. He doesn’t wear the latest styles or dominate the stage with a larger-than-life preaching style that astounds the teenagers. He is, in many ways, an average guy who’s developed the disciplines listed above and has, with the help of the Holy Spirit, built a thriving youth ministry that’s impacting his city greatly with the hope of the Gospel.
He’s prayerful, so the Lord guides him and his team as they stay sensitive to His direction.
He’s fit, so he’s ready for the long haul and late nights of youth ministry.
He’s intentional in his mission (“every teen, everywhere, hearing the Gospel from a friend”) and his strategy (Gospel Advancing), and in excellence and evaluation.
Be like Mario, an average guy with above-average disciplines that result in a powerful, effective youth ministry.